Dennis Prager was Wrong about the Connection Between Thought and Behavior in Judaism

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What are we to make of the recent comments by Dennis Prager that Judaism only calls actions evil, not thoughts?

And what should we think of his comments that someone deriving sexual pleasure from watching animated child porn was not doing something “evil”? (See here and here for relevant clips.)

Christian readers are familiar with the words of Jesus, spoken in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27–28)

But does this reflect Jewish thought as well? According to Dennis, my esteemed colleague and friend, there is no equivalent in Judaism to this teaching.

Is he right?

Before responding to that question with citations from rabbinic literature, let me address things from a biblical viewpoint, citing verses from the Old Testament, which Christians and Jews share in common.

First, one of the Ten Commandments forbids coveting, which is entirely a sin of the heart (Exodus 20:17).

As to why this is legislated, Dennis rightly explains in his short book on the Ten Commandments that here the Torah “legislates thought,” noting that this is because “it is coveting that so often leads to evil.” 

In his view, though, it is only the strong desire to have the specific thing that belongs to your neighbor (whether house or spouse) that is prohibited, as opposed to envy or lust in general.

In point of fact, the Hebrew Scriptures have more to say about this, which leads to the second verse, Proverbs 4:23, which states, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23)

These are strong words!

A contemporary Jewish translation renders the verse, “More than all that you guard, guard your mind, for it is the source of life” (New Jewish Version).

Why put so much emphasis on the heart/mind if Judaism only calls actions evil?

Third, in explaining the pervasive evil on the earth before the Flood, the Torah states, “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5)

Note carefully what this Torah text says: the very thoughts of the people’s hearts were evil all the time.

This is a Jewish text!

Other verses could be cited in which human thoughts are branded evil, including the call for the wicked to “forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts” (Isaiah 55:7, my emphasis).

How much more, then, do these scriptural truths apply to every aspect of animated child porn? (It’s distasteful even to write the words “animated child porn.”)

First, there are the evil and perverse thoughts of the people involved in creating the content. Second, there are the evil thoughts of the person being stimulated by it, coupled with the evil act of giving in to the stimulation. Third, in some cases, there are further evil actions that come out of this stimulation. To not brand every aspect of this as “evil” is inexcusable. (I’m not even addressing here what Judaism teaches about masturbation.)

As for rabbinic parallels to the Lord’s words on the Sermon on the Mount, cited above, a major compilation of rabbinic writings relating to the New Testament offers these citations, all from early rabbinic literature:

  • Leviticus Rabbah 23: “‘The eye of the adulterer lies in wait for the dawn’ (Job 24:15). Resh Laqish said, ‘You should not say that only he who commits adultery with his body is called an adulterer; also he who commits adultery with his eyes is called an adulterer.’”
  • Pesiqta Rabbati 24: “We find that he who commits adultery with his eyes is also called an adulterer; see Job 24:15.”
  • Mekilta d’ R. Simeon 111: “‘You shall not commit adultery,’ so that you shall not commit adultery … not even with the eye and not in the heart. And whence [do we learn] that the eye and the heart fornicate? See Num 15:39: ‘that you do not go after your heart and your eyes, after which you are lusting.’” 
  • Tractate Kallah 1: “Whoever looks at a woman with (lustful) intent is considered like one who has intercourse with her.”
  • Berakhot 24a: “Rab Sheshet said, ‘Why does Scripture (cf. Num 31:50) list the adornments that are on visible parts of the body [literally: outside] next to the adornments that are on parts of the body that are not visible? To tell you, ‘Whoever looks at the little finger of a woman is as if he looked at the place of shame.’” 

These rabbinic texts, some from the Talmud and others from recognized, “canonical” rabbinic texts, put the lie to Dennis’s contention that there is no Jewish parallel to the Lord’s words in Matthew 5:28.

Accordingly, New Testament scholar Hans Dieter Betz, in his massive commentary on the Sermon on the Mount wrote, “As scholars have noted, the psychology of sin presented in . . . Matt 5:27–28 was well known in first-century Judaism.” (He provided ancient citations of his own, supplementing some of those just cited, and all representing Jewish thought current at the time of Jesus.) 

Then, after further discussion, Betz concluded, “Scholars have undeniably been correct in maintaining that . . . Matt 5:28 remains essentially within the framework of Jewish theology.”

Jesus, after all, was called “Rabbi” (at that time, an honorific title rather than a formal one), and although He challenged some of the Jewish traditions of His day, He was, in the end, a Jewish teacher.

In light of these scriptural and rabbinic citations, I do hope that Dennis will reconsider his position. 

While we all agree that doing a thing is worse than simply thinking about it, we should also agree that certain thoughts are, in and of themselves, evil.

To repeat the words of Proverbs, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

(For the record, I informed Dennis that I’d be writing this article and promised to send him the link once it was up. He, in turn, said he would definitely read it. I look forward to hearing his response.)

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